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Should the Internet be an Information Superhighway, or a toll road? That’s the question being raised after a federal court ruling on January 14, 2014 struck down the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) open internet rules, commonly known as "Net Neutrality."
Simply put, this decision means network providers are now legally allowed to favor certain types of traffic over others. This can mean anything from providing faster service to preferred clients, to setting up a tiered structure that charges more for faster internet connections, to actually blocking websites.
Maybe you own a brick-and-mortar business and don’t use the Internet much. How does this affect your company? The truth is, it may affect all of us very soon, and not in a good way.
What’s at Stake? Net neutrality is the principle that telecommunications companies must give equal access to all users, websites, and apps. Without net neutrality, an internet service provider (ISP) can discriminate in favor of one company over another. For example, a search engine could pay an extra fee to the ISP to get its search results delivered faster than competitors, or a movie company could pay extra to have its movies download faster. Internet users are notoriously impatient, so if it takes longer to get downloads from the web service they currently use, they’ll move to a faster one. In effect, just a few powerful phone and cable companies could pick winners and losers among tech companies instead of letting the best companies win by providing better products and services.
The recent ruling also means that ISPs can charge end users (you and me) more for access and services, similar to cable television’s tiered pricing structure. The web could be divided up into sections so users could be charged fees for quick access to the websites they want. Want social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn? Sign up for a premium package. Want faster download speeds? Pay a little more each month. For an extra fee, you can even have unlimited access to everything on the web!
It’s also legal now for ISPs to block access to content they don’t like and reject apps that compete with their own products. This makes net neutrality not just an economic issue, but also a First Amendment one. It may start with blocking access to pornography sites, and move into choosing which content we can see on political and social topics.What Can We Do?
Consumer groups and organizations including Free Press and Public Knowledge have rallied to ask Congress and the President to take action. If you’re interested in ensuring that all Americans have the access they need to freely exchange information over the Internet, contact your elected representatives and let them know that you support net neutrality.Resources For a good summary of the net neutrality issue, visit the Public Knowledge website. The Free Press website includes an online petition.